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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • Orthodox Worship: The Sacraments
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Orthodox Worship: The Sacraments

“He who was visible as our Redeemer has now

passed into the sacraments” (Saint Leo the Great).

The chief place in Christian worship belongs to the sacraments or, as they are called in Greek,

the mysteries. ‘It is called a mystery,’ writes Saint John Chrysostom of the Eucharist, ‘because

what we believe is not the same as what we see, but we see one thing and believe another ...

When I hear the Body of Christ mentioned, I understand what is said in one sense, the unbeliever

in another’ (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 7:1 (P.G. 61, 55)). This double character, at once outward and

inward, is the distinctive feature of a sacrament: the sacraments, like the Church, are both visible

and invisible; in every sacrament there is the combination of an outward visible sign with an inward

spiritual grace. At Baptism the Christian undergoes an outward washing in water, and he is

at the same time cleansed inwardly from his sins; at the Eucharist he receives what appears from

the visible point of view to be bread and wine, but in reality he eats the Body and Blood of

Christ.

In most of the sacraments the Church takes material thingswater, bread, wine, oil — and

makes them a vehicle of the Spirit. In this way the sacraments look back to the Incarnation, when

Christ took material flesh and made it a vehicle of the Spirit; and they look forward to, or rather

they anticipate, the apocatastasis and the final redemption of matter at the Last Day.

The Orthodox Church speaks customarily of seven sacraments, basically the same seven as

in Roman Catholic theology:

1 Baptism

2 Chrismation (equivalent to Confirmation in the west)

3 The Eucharist

4 Repentance or Confession

5 Holy Orders

6 Marriage or Holy Matrimony

7 The Anointing of the Sick (corresponding to Extreme Unction in the Roman Catholic

Church)

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Only in the seventeenth century, when Latin influence was at its height, did this list become

fixed and definite. Before that date Orthodox writers vary considerably as to the number of sacraments:

John of Damascus speaks of two; Dionysius the Areopagite of six; Joasaph, Metropolitan

of Ephesus (fifteenth century), of ten; and those Byzantine theologians who in fact speak of

seven sacraments differ as to the items which they include in their list. Even today the number

seven has no absolute dogmatic significance for Orthodox theology, but is used primarily as a

convenience in teaching.

Those who think in terms of ‘seven sacraments’ must be careful to guard against two misconceptions.

In the first place, while all seven are true sacraments, they are not all of equal importance,

but there is a certainhierarchy’ among them. The Eucharist, for example, stands at the

heart of all Christian life and experience in a way that the Anointing of the Sick does not. Among

the seven, Baptism and the Eucharist occupy a special position: to use a phrase adopted by the

joint Committee of Romanian and Anglican theologians at Bucharest in 1935, these two sacraments

are ‘pre-eminent among the divine mysteries.’

In the second place, when we talk of ‘seven sacraments,’ we must never isolate these seven

from the many other actions in the Church which also possess a sacramental character, and

which are conveniently termed sacramentals. Included among these sacramentals are the rites for

a monastic profession, the great blessing of waters at Epiphany, the service for the burial of the

dead, and the anointing of a monarch. In all these there is a combination of outward visible sign

and inward spiritual grace. The Orthodox Church also employs a great number of minor blessings,

and these, too, are of a sacramental nature: blessings of corn, wine, and oil; of fruits, fields,

and homes; of any object or element. These lesser blessings and services are often very practical

and prosaic: there are prayers for blessing a car or a railway engine, or for clearing a place of

vermin (‘The popular religion of Eastern Europe is liturgical and ritualistic, but not wholly otherworldly. A religion

that continues to propagate new forms for cursing caterpillars and for removing dead rats from the bottoms of

wells can hardly be dismissed as pure mysticism’ (G. Every, The Byzantine Patriarchate, first edition, p. 198)) Between

the wider and the narrower sense of the termsacrament’ there is no rigid division: the

whole Christian life must be seen as a unity, as a single mystery or one great sacrament, whose

different aspects are expressed in a great variety of acts, some performed but once in a man’s

life, others perhaps daily.

The sacraments are personal: they are the means whereby God’s grace is appropriated to

every Christian individually. For this reason, in most of the sacraments of the Orthodox Church,

the priest mentions the Christian name of each person as he administers the sacrament. When

giving Holy Communion, for example, he says: ‘The servant of God ... [name] partakes of the

holy, precious Body and Blood of Our Lord;’ at the Anointing of the Sick he says: ‘O Father,

heal Thy servant [name] from his sickness both of body and soul.’




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